Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Recommended: Arrow

There's no bigger booster than a reformed skeptic. In the early 2000's, I was excited because The WB aired a series called Smallville, which was about Superman's teen years growing up in Kansas. I stuck it out for a variety of eps, but I grew contemptuous of the show - eventually calling it "Small, Vile."

Specifically, Smallville had two failings for every strength. It relied on the monster-of-the-week episode format excessively, and combined this with a refusal to progress the story and character because that would mean that they'd be writing about Superman, not a teen Clark Kent. Every nice bit of good dialogue was balanced out by a few groaners. The fx were used so sparingly as to be silly. And some of the acting was really, really not good.

It got old fast, is what I'm saying.

So 2012 rolls around and I learn that The WB's successor, CW Network, is airing Arrow, a series about Oliver Queen, aka the Green Arrow - DC Comics' vigilante Robin Hood figure who regularly teams up with Superman and Batman and others. And I assumed it would capital-S suck. I was even more skeptical because I heard that Smallville had added the Green Arrow to its cast - and though I had long-since stopped following that program, I did read some hilarious reviews about how bad Clark Kent's adventures really got.

So imagine my surprise when I checked out Arrow and it's actually quite good. I'm recommending it now, right? Surely something must have turned me around when I tuned in prepared to mock it mercilessly. The show was, simply put, a complete 180 from Smallville. Where the earlier series had poor dialogue, Arrow had good lines. Where the WB's effort was in stasis, the CW's showed constant plot, story, and character progression. While Clark Kent's outings featured poor special effects, Oliver Queen's adventures were full of good visuals and great fight sequences.

The story: we begin with billionaire playboy Oliver Queen's unexpected return to his hometown, Starling City. The guy disappeared 5 years ago with his father and some others; all of them were sailing on a yacht and presumed to have perished in a storm. Ollie comes home, but it's not all wine and roses. For one thing, our lead was a spoiled, irresponsible jerk - he never worked, always partied, and he left on that boat trip with his then-girlfriend's sister!

But our lead suffers from more than the disconnect of having missed out on 5 years of news and societal developments. What no else knows is that Oliver had two drastic, life-changing events. First, his father revealed that he was a corrupt businessman and gave his son a book that named every influential criminal who was destroying Starling City - as well as tasking his boy with righting a parent's wrongs. Second, the years spent in the wild taught Ollie how to be an expert archer, hand-to-hand fighter, and parkour enthusiast. Oh, and he kills the people on his daddy's hit list without compunction or pause.

Yes, this adventurous TV show dares to give us a "hero" who flat-out murders guilty people that he could instead try to imprison. And, after the first few episodes and a risky reaching-out, Mr. Queen teams up with Diggle, his Afghanistan-vet aide who forces the lead to understand that cold-blooded murder is always wrong, no matter what sins a person might have piled up on their heads. They, like most of the cast, also exhibit great chemistry.

It was shocking to see a series that gives us an at-first murderous lead, and then challenges us to accept that he is forced to understand and adopt to a better way. It says a lot about Arrow that it provides our hero with tons of past demons, as well as major mistakes which were only made a month ago. Now that is ballsy, risk-taking television, and I'm very grateful for it - especially if it comes from the US, and not abroad.

In case I forget to mention the cast later - and I probably will - Stephen Amell starts out good, and only grows stronger as, Oliver Queen, our lead. Katie Cassidy is Laurel Lance, the public defender ex-girlfriend Ollie abandoned by seducing and absconding with her sister (who perished when the boat sank). Paul Blackthorne is Laurel's father, an SCPD detective. Susanna Thompson is beautifully-nuanced as the lead's mother, Moira Queen.

David Ramsey plays John Diggle, the bodyguard who comes to work with "The Arrow." Willa Holland is Thea Queen, Oliver's kid sister. Colin Donnell is Tommy Merlyn, Mr. Queen's compatriot in partying who hasn't evolved much over 5 long years. John Barrowman is Malcolm Merlyn, a wealthy business associate of Moira's who is such a criminal that his ties should be crooked. And the exceptional Colin Salmon is Walter Steele, Moira's new husband and current head of Queen Industries.

On paper, the affairs of a non-powered superhero shouldn't have been much fun. No hyper-speed, or mega-strength, no clinging to walls or flight. Like Lost, this new show used flashbacks to Oliver's 5 years stranded on a treacherous island! And to make things (seemingly) worse, Arrow was full of soap opera moments, devoting time to subplots involving the lead's mom, younger sister, best friend, ex-girlfriend, the ex's cop father, a street kid inspired by this new vigilante, his mom's nefarious business partner, and even Ollie's stepdad. How cheesy does that sound?

Yet, somehow, over the course of 23 episodes, Arrow's first season was excellent. There are very few eps that I would rate a C or lower, and quite a few that would earn a B or higher. I have to think that the real strength here is terribly-solid writing. The series regularly wraps up a plotline faster than you would expect, or turns in a direction you don't see coming. It also often deals with "little" issues or narrative oversights that other shows would ignore (and hope the viewer would, too).

It's not all perfect, either. Early on, Stephen Amell has conversations with arms stock-still at his sides - y'know, like no one outside an army ever does. Some of the soap moments get boring, specifically ones involving the angry ex, Dinah Lance, and the best friend, Tommy Merlyn. And a couple of entries - notably "Dodger," are just silly.

Yet, over and over again, I kept thinking to myself, "there is no reason for them to have put this much quality into these scenes," or "I can't believe how good that action sequence was!" The creators could've been satisfied with much less effort, but they obviously gave every episode their all, and I was very appreciative of this fact and how regularly it was evident on the screen. It's one thing to have good writing, but it's another to have fine execution.

Currently, Hulu is hosting 5 episodes at a time - the same selection as is available on The CW's site. The second season starts on October 9th, so you have some time to catch up before so you don't go into Round 2 cold. Do yourself a favor and check this out asap. The S2 trailer is below, please skip to the 1 minute, 27 second mark to avoid S1 spoilers.

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